What’s the state of the Syrian war, nine years on?

What’s the state of the Syrian war, nine years on?

11 min read

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In this podcast, Oscar Fernandez, senior researcher at EsadeGeo, and Rim Turkmani, director of the Syrian Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics, delve into the Syrian conflict and the challenges ahead to overcome a long-lasting civil war that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. This podcast was recorded last month during Turkmani's visit to Esade Business School in Barcelona.


Oscar Fernandez: Hello, my name is Oscar Fernandez and I am a senior researcher at the Esade Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics. Joining us today is Rim Turkmani, director of the Syrian Conflict Research Programme at the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics. Doctor Turkmani, thank you very much for being with us.

Rim Turkmani: Thank you very much for inviting me, I’m honoured to be here talking to you and the students this afternoon.

Oscar Fernandez: Let me first ask you briefly about your life story. You were born in Homs in Syria.

Rim Turkmani: Yes.

Oscar Fernandez: You did your bachelor’s degree in Damascus. And then you pursued an international career in astrophysics, with a PhD obtained in Sweden. When the Syrian war started you were working at Imperial College in London, and then your career path changed drastically and you decided to embrace the social sciences. We were wondering if you would like to take us through those times and how the Syrian war influenced your decision.

Rim Turkmani: Sure. I grew up in Syria. I went to Damascus University, where I had a great time, but the one thing missing was proper scientific research. My goal was to become a scientist, and science is about producing new knowledge through research. That was not an option in Syria, nor anywhere in the entire region, which is why I made the decision to travel abroad and take a master’s degree and PhD at a European university.

Syria podcast
Rim Turkmani and Oscar Fernandez during the podcast session at Esade Business School in Barcelona (Photo: Esade)

So I did that in Sweden and, soon after I finished, I got a job at Imperial College as an astrophysicist. I worked there for more than eight years. I was very happy, I had a fellowship from the Royal Society, which was established 350 years ago and is the most prestigious scientific society on Earth. Everything was looking good and I was settled, married and living in London – and then suddenly Syria fell apart. And so I gradually fell apart as well. 

I just couldn’t watch this without doing anything. I couldn’t continue looking at the sky, watching the sun and the stars, and do nothing about my country. It was a very difficult time, so I realised that the one thing I know how to do is research. There was very little academic research about Syria. Very few attempts were made to understand the structure of power, the economy and how the country works. As we would expect, the data that was coming was also very polarised during the conflict.

In March this year, it will be nine years since the beginning of the Syrian war

When I talked to people on the ground there, I always heard a different story than the dominant story in the media. So I decided that I wanted to research what was going on, and particularly, the local dynamics. I started this on my own, and then I met professor Mary Kaldor, who works at the LSE, and she said to me: "well, we do things almost exactly the same way. We work with civil society, trying to understand the dynamics on the ground and how we can present solutions."

I started working with her part-time, and then came one publication, and then another, and they were well received. So I ended up working at the London School of Economics directing research programmes on Syria.

Oscar Fernandez: That is fascinating. In March this year, it will be nine years since the beginning of the Syrian war.

Rim Turkmani: Yes.

Oscar Fernandez: And recently we have seen some developments that would appear to clear up the situation slightly. I’m thinking mostly about ISIS and how it lost most, if not all, of its territory in Syria. And it also recently lost its leader, al-Baghdadi, in a US raid. US support to the Kurds has diminished, and Bashar al-Assad is now on the offensive against Turkish forces in Idlib. We know Assad is guilty of perpetrating terrible war crimes against his own people. But can we already say that he is emerging victorious from the war?

Rim Turkmani: It depends on how you want to see the war. If you see it as a conflict between an authoritarian regime and people who want democracy and respect for human rights, then he certainly did not win – he lost badly. He came out even worse than he was before.

The regime is now very weak and challenged in many ways

If you see it as a war over the control of land, then in a way he won – but it's a very pyrrhic victory. He only controls parts of Syria. But this is not the only thing you need to govern a state. On many other fronts, he is unable to govern, and so the regime is now very weak and challenged in many ways.

The economy is doing very badly, and he is unable to deliver services to the people. Many people who supported the regime and fought with him, are now saying: "hold on, we supported you for nine years, our kids died for you to stay in power, on the promise that the war would be over and everything would be better, and now that the war is over you are still in power. But look at where we are – we lost everything and you are unable to deliver anything for us."

He is being challenged by his own constituency. Not only the opposition. So I don’t think the regime is in a very good position.

Oscar Fernandez: That is very interesting.

Rim Turkmani: On the issue of ISIS – yes, it did lose territorial control. But remember that having control over a piece of land and acting as a state is only one face of ISIS. It existed underground before and still exists underground today. And the reasons why ISIS was able to control this area of land remain. It’s the lack of a legitimate state.

Many young people have nothing to do and no one is paying them to do a proper job. There is an ideological vacuum. People want a state. ISIS came and said: "Okay, we can reverse the collapse of the state, and we are going to give you a state and its functions. As long as you obey the rules, you will be fine."

We have to be careful because if the conflict is not resolved we may see a comeback of ISIS

This situation is still there on the ground. So we have to be careful because if the conflict is not resolved we might well see a comeback of ISIS. It could be under a different name and different colours, but it would be something of a similar nature.

Oscar Fernandez: We know that Syria is much more than a civil war because international actors are deeply involved in the conflict. One of the main actors is Iran, which is perhaps the chief sponsor of the Assad regime. The man who was leading Iran’s operations in Syria was Qasem Soleimani, a top general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. As everybody knows he was killed by a US drone strike in early January. How do you think Soleimani’s killing will influence Iran’s behaviour and operations in Syria – if it is going to have any influence at all?

Rim Turkmani: Iran has influence in Syria, and it’s not going to change dramatically after the killing of Soleimani. All the same issues are still there, including the infiltration of the economy. Iran is still trying to mobilise all over Syria, for instance, by building schools to try to convert people to Shiism. They’re recruiting youngsters to the militias. They’re buying properties. And it’s not going to be easy to get rid of that influence. You can’t do it by killing one man.

Iran is still trying to mobilise all over Syria and it is building schools to convert people to Shiism

We need more political and diplomatic solutions, and different forms of engagement. Everyone in the West is concerned about Iran using nuclear power. But how likely are they to use it? How likely is anyone to use a nuclear bomb? People should be more worried about the other forms of power that Iran is exercising outside its borders to destabilise the entire region – not only Syria, but also Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq. People should focus on this and not on the nuclear aspects.

Oscar Fernandez: Let’s talk diplomacy and the role of the European Union. What do you think about the role the European Union has played throughout these nine years of conflict? What could we have done better and how could we play a more constructive role in the future?

Rim Turkmani: I would say the main role played by the European Union, in terms of its institutions, is economic. The immediate neighbours of Syria are actually European – not Russian or American. But the main polarising powers in the Syrian conflict are Russia and the US. Who pays the price of the conflict outside its borders? Besides Lebanon and Turkey, it’s actually Europe who receives the refugees. Who paid the humanitarian bill? Europe. Who suffers all the security risk coming from ISIS? It’s Europe, not Russia or the US.

Europe is paying for all the consequences of Russian and American actions in the region

Europe is paying for all the consequences of Russian and American actions in the region. Why does Europe do this without any political gain? Politically, Europeans have not been influential, sadly. They took a very firm position very early on in the conflict, saying the regime should be toppled and Assad should step down. They just completely cut all ties – although they kept their offices in Damascus open with minimal staff. Since then there was not much they were able to do, except pay for the humanitarian consequences.

We need Europe to come back. We need Europe to be part of the political process and to be present at the political table, which is dominated by Russia, the US, Iran, Turkey and the Syrian regime. We need the Europeans there to balance this and invoke the values of democracy and respect for human rights. I’m not going to expect this from Iran or Russia. Syrians want democracy and their human rights and dignity respected. That’s the main reason why they went on the streets in 2011.

We need Europe to be part of the political process and to be present at the political table

Oscar Fernandez: What kind of Syria do you envisage ten years from now, and to what extend do you think civil society can contribute to repairing the social and political fabric of the country?

Rim Turkmani: It’s very difficult to see ahead. Anyone who says that they can see beyond six months in Syria either doesn’t know what they’re talking about or they are lying. Right now the economy is finished. The national reserve is gone. The productive economy is completely dead. The economy is extremely dependent on external factors, so any fluctuations in exchange rate reflect directly on ordinary people. Whoever comes with an economic solution can dictate the future and the coming ten years. The future of the country is up for sale – it all comes down to who is going to buy it. Do we want the Gulf to come in and create a state under religious leadership – either Sunni or Shia? Do we want a post-Soviet-like state? Or do we want a country on the track towards democracy?

If Europe comes back with the right political strengths – which are attached to its founding values – and works with civil society and the small and medium size private sector, and if it has a comprehensive economic and political plan, then there is a chance my country will get on the road to recovery. There is a lot of space for civil society to step forward because it has a true vision for the future of Syria, unlike the political opposition. Once there is less violence and interference, there will be more space for civil society to step in and play a leading role.

Oscar Fernandez: Thank you very much for these very interesting insights, Doctor Turkmani.

Rim Turkmani: Thank you for having me.

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